The Tree of Life and the Mythic Vision of the Book of Mormon

The Iron Rod, the Tree of Life, and the Mythic Vision of the Book of Mormon

 January 2015

The conventional Mormon testimony of the Book of Mormon centers on whether the Book of Mormon is true or not. For most, this truth is the factual truth of the Book of Mormon as an ancient record. Many Mormons in fact gain a testimony on this level of the Book of Mormon without even having read the book, or having read very little. But there is another level, the mythic level, on which the Book of Mormon can be equally as “true” as the strictly “factual” level. The mythic truth in fact can be quite independent of the factual foundations of the book.  More importantly, a mythic approach to the Book of Mormon can be much more illuminating and transforming than a strictly factual approach.

The Truth as Myth, Myth as the Truth

Joseph Campbell sometimes defined myth as “someone else’s religion”. This definition for him was completely tongue in cheek because for Campbell there was in fact no higher truth than that which we encounter through myth. Because myth is a way of seeing. Myth is not about ascertaining the cold, hard facts. It is, rather, about a reality that is transcendent of the cold, hard facts. The mythic vision is not impervious to the cold hard facts, but it is about understanding our place in the world, our purpose in life, and therefore more than anything it is about the meaning of life. Religion, of course, is all about the meaning of life as well. So the mythic vision and a religious vision are not at odds.

Religion and myth are not at odds unless, that is, religion tries to demythologize its own symbols and “truths”.  This happens when religionists focus more on the denotation of the truths of their religion than the connotation of these truths, to use Joseph Campbell’s terminology.   The denotation deals with the cold, hard facts. The connotation with meaning. The factual truth of the atonement for denotational religionists, for example, becomes more important than the meaning of the atonement.  A mythic or metaphorical view would focus on the atonement as a symbol of personal or community sacrificial ransom, for example, and thus cause some reflection on the nature of one’s personal debt to the community or one’s fellows, perhaps occasioning a reordering of priorities and/or behaviors. This doesn’t mean that a strictly “factual” testimony of the atonement could not have a positive impact on the holder of the testimony: Jesus died for my sins, therefore I had better measure up, and try to be like Jesus: for example, more loving.

An individual, without any contradictions, can simultaneously hold both of these kinds of truths, the denotational or factual truth, and the connotational or mythic or meaningful truth, as valid. But as the mythic truth, the deeper meaning, is explored and followed more deeply, the denotative truth often fades in importance, and for some becomes practically irrelevant.

The Book of Mormon can be viewed as a wholly mythic document, completely independent of whatever historical truth its defenders may believe in or that its detractors may disbelieve in.  The mythic aspects of the Book of Mormon are in no way dependent on how pure of a prophet Joseph Smith may have been. He could have been the squeaky clean prophet of the official church version, or he could have been closer to what his critics claim: very much flawed, perhaps overly self-flattered by the power he had over his followers, perhaps possessed of a somewhat outsized libido. But that he was a mystic through whom powerful mythic truths flowed can hardly be denied if the mythic aspects of the Book of Mormon are looked at carefully.

The Book of Mormon contains both overtly metaphorical passages as well as ostensibly historical episodes that could be also be interpreted metaphorically. Overtly metaphorical passages include, for example, the tree of life vision, the word as a seed, and the wild and tame olive trees.  There is no pretense anywhere in the Book of Mormon that these passages refer to concrete realities. An example of an historical episode with undeniably rich metaphorical meaning is the story of the Liahona. This Liahona, a kind of compass that depended on the righteousness of the owner to function, is asserted to have actually existed, but the Liahona is also used extensively in modern church discourse as a metaphor for following the Spirit. One can obviously ponder the metaphorical meaning of the Liahona without worrying about the historical factuality of this instrument.  A metaphor is a carrier of meaning, as evidenced by its etymological roots: the Greek pherein, to carry or to bear, and meta, to transfer.  The mythic vision is about transferring meaning from parables or from historical episodes, real or imagined. The metaphor is the principal vessel of transferring that meaning.

The Central Myth of the Book of Mormon

Perhaps the most powerful metaphor in the Book of Mormon is that of the iron rod and the tree of life. The metaphor of the tree of life occurs early in the Book of Mormon, and in many ways might be thought of as the central metaphor of the Book of Mormon, and perhaps even of our life in the Church.  It is a metaphor of the pilgrim’s journey, a metaphorical quest common to many traditions. It is a metaphor of both being and becoming, a metaphor of the journey to illumination, as well as a metaphor of illumination itself.  The tree of life allegory can also be viewed as a metaphor of the role of the church—as a fundamental facilitator of getting to the tree and partaking of the fruit.  I will explore this myth or allegory for the rest of the paper.  I argue that as a church we have focused on one part of the allegory over the other. The iron rod gets much more attention than the fruit of the tree of life. Our mythic vision, whether we recognize it as a mythic vision or not, shapes the very role and nature of the church. I argue further that a mythic vision that embraces the totality of this metaphor would have profound effects on the church and where it places its emphasis. And more importantly, an impact on our own quests for personal transformation.

The tree of life vision is described early in the Book of Mormon.  Nephi first describes the vision by relating the dream of his father Lehi in 1 Nephi 8, and then provides in 1 Nephi 11 an expanded version based on an angelically-assisted awakening to the meaning of the symbols.  The central part of the vision is the tree of life itself, and the fruit of the tree is the object of desire. Eating the fruit not only makes one happy, it is associated with a transformative blossoming of love.  But getting to the tree requires a quest, a journey along a perilous path with many opportunities for getting lost on extraneous trails or perishing in a raging stream. Most of this journey must occur in a “mist of darkness” that impedes seeing the path ahead clearly. The only sure way to get to the tree is by holding onto the iron rod that parallels the path that leads to the tree. But once at the tree, additional distractions could keep the seekers from their goal, even after having tasted of the fruit. A “great and spacious building” in view of the tree of life contains throngs of successful and well-dressed spectators mocking the partakers at the tree. Many of the partakers, influenced by this worldly ridicule, wander down other paths back into the mists of darkness.

This vision captures Nephi’s imagination, and as he “sat pondering” on it, he was “caught away in the Spirit of the Lord” (1 Nephi 11:1).  Nephi now sees the same elements of the vision his father had, but with significant additions giving more precise meaning to the metaphorical elements of the vision.

In this “annotated” vision, relatively little attention is paid to the iron rod. Most of this passage is taken up with the meaning of the fruit of the tree of life.  Nephi sees the fruit at the beginning of his vision, and he understands that it is “the thing”, the center of the quest, that which is “most precious above all” (v 9), and he tells the angel that is mediating his vision that more than anything else he wants to know the meaning of the tree and the fruit.  The angel then shows him in vision the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, and he asks Nephi if he understands the “condescension of God” (v 16).  Nephi tells him he knows God loves his children, but he is not quite sure what the angel might be talking about.  The angel then shows him Mary again, this time with a child in her arms, and explains that this is God himself in those arms, and then the angel asks Nephi if he now understands the meaning of the tree which his father had seen (v21).

Seeing Almighty God as a mortal child, the “condescension of God”, has illuminated Nephi, and he understands that the tree or its fruit represent the “love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men”, and which therefore is to be “desired above all things”.  Nephi recognized the centrality of the At One Ment: the great condescension in the gospel story, in the divine mythos, and its role in the spiritual transformation of individual humans.

The Rod and the Tree: Path and Destination, or Competing Visions?

The iron rod and the tree of life are a unitary vision of path and destination. Hold to rod, walk the path, and you arrive at the tree and partake of the fruit.  It is not possible to get to the tree without enduring the trials of the path. It is pointless to follow the path without a desire to taste the fruit. Focus is required—focus on the ultimate goal and focus on the means to get there: the path and the rod.

At least two very different mythic visions can emerge from this rich metaphor.  The iron rod is the way of strict obedience, of strict conformity to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. Deviation leads to perdition. The tree and its fruit, on the other hand, conjure a vision of transcendence of the law, of taking on a god-like loving nature, where one is not outside nor even above the law, but where the law is no longer a focus because our very nature has changed. We no longer have a disposition to do evil.

The Law and the Spirit: a conflicted continuum that virtually all religious traditions struggle with.  Here it is as the central metaphor of the Book of Mormon. How do we achieve balance between these two seemingly contradictory components of our faith?  A mythic approach might be a better guide than a strictly theological approach.

The Church as The Iron Rod and the Straight and the Narrow

For most of the Church leadership, probably at any level, the iron rod and the straight and narrow path are very likely key metaphors for the mission of the church itself.  The Church is the iron rod. Not only the Church as an organization, but also the scriptural canon of the Church, the handbooks of the Church, and the various pronouncements of Church leaders through conference and outlets such as the Ensign and the Liahona magazines.  If you follow what the Church lays out, i.e., if you obey the commandments, you will be saved:  you will arrive at the destination to which the iron rod leads.

In this metaphor or mythic vision, the Church is the official trustee of the rod and the path. There is no other rod or path outside of the Church. What the Church prescribes and proscribes are what keeps you on the path. The way you hold to the rod is to follow sanctioned (i.e., correlated) teachings. Non-church teachings or the doctrines of men are what take you on paths that can get you lost in the darkness and that lead nowhere productive.

Focus on the iron rod means putting most of your effort into the rod and the path itself. A simple path and rod that lead to the tree is not nearly enough. The rod needs to be strengthened and embellished. The path needs paving, lighting, drainage, etc. The tree and the fruit are there, but less attention is given to the actual destination.  It is not so much about getting to the actual destination as it is to just stay on the right path. The path is what is important, and the Church is the path.  The ultimate partaking of the fruit is a result of being on the path. It is not really necessary to focus on the destination, since the path only leads in one direction anyway.

Where the path is the principal focus, programs assume central importance. Programs are what make up the path. Programs with excellent outcomes to be sure.  But these outcomes are still about characteristics that help keep us on the path—doing our genealogy, learning the scriptures, staying chaste, etc.  They are not really about the profound transformation associated with partaking the fruit and feeling the love the “sheddeth itself abroad”.  I don’t know of any church “programs” focused on becoming charitable or having a broken heart, although it could certainly be argued that Church programs in the aggregate might lead to such a state. Service programs, of course, are a very large step in that direction.

Those who narrow their focus to this part of the Lehi/Nephi vision place great emphasis of the purity of what is taught in church, and the correctness of policies and procedures. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and it is important that things be done “the right way.”  It doesn’t matter how trivial the issue; doing it “right” is what matters.  Taking the sacrament with the right hand, for example, might be as important, and for many more important, than reflecting on the eating of the bread and the drinking of the water as symbols of the divine ransom operating in our lives.

The Temple, perhaps one of the most powerful religious symbols of any faith on earth, becomes the ultimate guardian of doing it “the right way.”  Our temples are full of symbolism and imagery. The temple itself is a great symbol of purity and holiness. A moderate “purification” ritual must take place before you can enter (sacrifice of money and time, strict following of a dietary code, etc).  It is the culmination of a quest. Sacred covenants are made. There are significant parallels to the iron rod and tree of life allegory.

In spite of the rich symbolism of Mormon temples, the symbols within the temple are almost wholly without meaning for modern members. There is little or no explication given in the temple or elsewhere. The ritual is full of symbols, but mythos is totally lacking. It is largely tokens and signs without meaning.

Within the temple ritual, the emphasis is on getting the rituals “right”. The hands must be held in an exact position, the temple robes must be worn in an exact fashion.  But there is no meditation on the meaning of the symbols.  While there is time for meditation in the celestial room following the completion of the endowment ritual, there is no encouragement to reflect on any of the symbols associated with the temple ceremony. No one ever speaks of any of these symbols in any meaningful way to the average temple patron, or anywhere else for that matter. But perhaps it doesn’t really matter because the entire focus is on getting the signs and tokens right.  The focus is on the path, not on the destination.

Rather than the tokens being symbols of stages in life or states of consciousness, the signs are wholly concretized and virtually stripped of any meaning. One learns the signs because they are the very signs and tokens one needs to enter into heaven. Thus the entire focus of the temple or endowment ceremony is learning with exactness these tokens. The overt message is that there will be an actual gatekeeper, and that one will be required to know the signs and tokens. One could hold a belief in the real need to have the tokens, but at the same time try to derive meaning from the metaphorical aspects of the signs and tokens.  But there is no discussion of any of the metaphorical aspects of any of the signs or tokens. The denotational emphasis is so strong that little or no emphasis is placed on symbolic meaning. This focus doesn’t mean that the temple doesn’t have great symbolic power in the lives of church members, because it certainly does, perhaps mainly in terms of forever families.  But that symbolic meaning is much narrower than it could otherwise be. Lovingkindness could certainly be part of that meaning –the end result of eating the fruit. But that would involve another kind of mythos.

And so on with the rest of the ordinances and teachings of the gospel. Now this does not mean that the other half of the vision, the tree and its fruit, is totally ignored. There is plenty taught in the church that focuses on learning to become a loving and forgiving human being. But the fact is that relatively little time is spent in Church focusing on these qualities.  In the Gospel Principles manual, there is one lesson on charity, and six on the end times (2nd Coming, the Millennium, Exaltation, etc.).  A lesson on service is perhaps close to charity, but the imbalance is obvious. There are five lessons on priesthood and church governance. Nothing on forgiveness, at least as a full lesson topic. Again, the focus appears to be on the path, not the tree.

In Primary, a wonderful hymn teaches children to “hold to the rod”. No primary song similarly focuses on the tree of life, although there are plenty that focus on our Savior’s love, and how to be a more loving person. But the fact that there is no children’s song about the tree of life perhaps conditions children as they grow up to recognize the iron rod as the central part of Nephi’s metaphoric vision, with little attention paid to the tree and the fruit as they progress through years of church classes.

The Church as the Tree: Vessel of Illumination

Partaking of the fruit is the ultimate goal. Even most iron rodders would likely agree with that.  The outcome here, however, is not quite as simple as holding to the rod. You must follow the straight and narrow to get to the tree, no doubt about that. But the full apprehension of the meaning of the fruit comes from the realization that one is ultimately and completely dependent on a divine ransom, a sacrifice that makes this life possible. When one recognizes that that sacrifice is the basis of this life, and that one is the beneficiary this divine love, that is when this love flowers within our souls and then it “sheddeth itself abroad” into the hearts of men. The broken heart and contrite spirit, a mighty change of heart, putting off the natural man: all of these are additional metaphors from elsewhere in the Book of Mormon for what the tree of life and its fruit represent.

The ultimate goal is thus complete self-transformation into a Christ-like being full of this divine love. Here, the path is important, but it does not make much sense to spend too much time or effort on the path or the rod. If the rod is serviceable, if the path is clear, then that is enough.  The whole point is to get to the tree.

Why is this part of the vision much less articulated as part of the mission of the Church versus the iron rod?  “Hold to the rod” is a common maxim heard in songs and talks at all levels in the Church.  How about “Eat the fruit”?  Or “partake of the fruit”?  Not heard quite as often. Not as catchy might be one reason. And a catchy slogan seems wholly inconsistent the profound kind of transformation that accompanies the partaking of the fruit.

Another reason is that this side of the metaphor is much fuzzier than the iron rod side. Just what does this illumination that Nephi had mean? How could that be made into a program? The pure love of Christ—how do we measure that? The iron rod and the path are a completely different matter.  The path metaphor can be spun into any number of programs. And we certainly know what it means to go astray off the true path. It is easy to define what the path means, and consequently relatively easy to measure how well you are inside or on the path, or how far off you might be.

Might it also be that the traditional end goal in the Church is “exaltation”?  Exaltation, entrance into the highest level of celestial glory, does not happen of course until deep into the next life.  Exaltation is outside the realm of anything happening in this life. If the path leads to a destination fully outside of this life, then there is not much we can do about the destination. The path is all we can deal with in this life.  It doesn’t make much sense to focus too much on that end goal –all we can really do is work on what we have in this life: the iron rod.

The Tree of Life vision/metaphor clearly points to an awakening and a transformation to be had in this life.  The awakening to Christ-like love or charity comes from a realization that our own lives are dependent on an unfathomable divine ransom that occurs in this life.  After partaking of the fruit, one is still subject to fear and shame, as evidenced by the reaction of many partakers to the denizens of the great and spacious building.  This kind of reaction is presumably not an afterlife phenomenon.

What would the church look like if the Tree of Life was central to church teachings, or at least equal to the iron rod?   Clearly this would still be a church of ordinances and covenants. There would of course still be programs. A stronger focus on charity or the pure love of Christ would perhaps put greater attention on interpersonal relationships than on doctrinal purity, important though that is.

If the tree of life were central to our focus, would not the art and practice of charity take on a much larger role within the instructional program of the church? Is one lesson on charity enough? If charity, the pure love of Christ, were that without which one is nothing, would it not be the focus of many if not most our lessons?  Moroni 7:45 provides just a small list of some lesson topics that are components of charity. How do we learn to suffer long? To avoid envy?  To bear and endure all things? Surely we learn these things in bits and pieces through the long 4-year theological survey of the scriptures that members must endure, but there is no central focus in that protracted survey. The metaphor of the tree of life would suggest that this love which “sheddeth itself abroad” is the filter through which all of the gospel, and indeed all knowledge and experience, must be viewed. The new curriculum for the youth is a very important step in this direction, and presumably the adult curriculum will soon follow suit. The October 2014 youth curriculum was completely devoted to becoming more Christlike, for example. I don’t believe we have seen this kind of focus in the  forty-plus years of Church service I have participated in.

However, as opposed to a “path-centered” focus on doctrine and theology, seeking and obtaining this gift of charity is not simply a matter of absorbing doctrinal verities.  A practice of charity is also required.  Fully partaking of the fruit requires us to be forgiving and to allow ourselves to be forgiven. To love and to be loved.

The experience of our church meetings, however, is almost completely about receiving “light and knowledge”.  Knowledge of course can be illuminating, as our oft-used phrase suggests. But there is also an important role for fellowship to play as we gather in meetings.  There is little time for much social interaction in a three-hour block devoted almost wholly to learning. At the end of three hours, few members have much energy left to linger and socialize.  It is likely difficult for active church leaders to recognize the lack of fellowship opportunities in our current structure. Most leaders who move into higher-level callings have spent a life in the close and often friendly fellowship of presidencies and councils. It might be difficult to appreciate the experience of a mother with young children and a primary calling who would be exhausted after 3 hours, and ready to go home immediately after church, without much energy to linger and socialize with fellow members.

In the vision of the Tree of Life, there is a real conviviality to the partaking of the fruit. Lehi wanted his family to join him at the tree. Each person individually partakes of the fruit, but the fruit cannot be eaten without wanting to share it.  Sharing involves knowledge, but a deeper meaning might be about sharing experience. Our testimony meetings enable sharing of this kind, although repeated direction from church headquarters that our testimonies be limited to a simple recitation of the truth of the gospel indicates some discomfort with too much personal sharing.

There is no question that we have abundant opportunities for service, even in a path-oriented church, whether through callings or through structured service projects. We would expect service opportunities to only increase in a shift toward a Tree of Life focus.

The Church, by definition, will always hold itself to be the one and only true path. Its restoration origin and mission dictate that role. But a stronger Tree of Life focus might mean somewhat less of an emphasis on a testimony of the vessel, i.e., the truthfulness of the church, and more of an emphasis on our own personal transformation, via partaking of the fruit.  Both of these paradigms—the one true church and a broken heart, AKA charity, are not contradictory. But the quest for transformation would become more important than recognition of the Church’s authority. The Church is still the most important vessel, as the means by which the restoration is brought about, including the Book of Mormon and its powerful, life-changing metaphors.

The Temple recommend interview for example very much focuses on our relationship to the Church and its hierarchical structure. We are of course asked if we have a testimony of the Atonement. We are asked if we are honest with our fellows. But what if we were asked if we are striving to be filled with the love of Christ?  Fuzzy? Of course—but not much fuzzier than the honesty question. The symbolic thrust of such a question could have a powerful impact through the message it would send to members.

As a bishop, I find it very productive to spend time on questions of charity and forgiveness in interviews with the youth. I must of course deal with chastity given the amount of hormones flowing through their bodies, but I find they struggle mightily with the weightier issues, and it is important for me as their bishop to guide them as best I can toward that tree of life.  A singular focus on chastity is a focus on the path without the fruit. Our youth need to know why they need to be chaste, why they need to stay on the path.  Chastity in and of itself is not a goal.  To be full of love and Christlike is the goal. To be unchaste ultimately is to be selfish, and thus in the “mists of darkness”, drifting far from the Tree.

 My Path to the Tree

Symbols and metaphors can point us in the right direction. But these metaphors must be alive with meaning in our lives.  Whatever concrete reality there is to any metaphor is irrelevant for all practical purposes without a strong connotational framework, especially in our personal lives. What does the metaphor mean to me, and how do I transfer meaning to my own personal quest?  The tree of life is as strong of a metaphor as any in all of the scriptures.  How do I use it to get to the transformational state that the Lord desires for me?  No doubt a much more important question given that I am not called to steady the ark of the Church, at least not the ark of the Church as a whole.

Very often it is as a parent where we have to grapple with our lack of charity. It was much easier for me as a father to be an “iron-rodder”  than a partaker and a sharer of the fruit. The day to day was always about the path and its requirements. I always seemed to focus on what my children should have been doing when they were growing up, rather than who they were. And the same holds for me. It is always about what I am doing, not so much who I am becoming.  For most of us, of course, we are most of the time on the path holding to the rod—its what keeps us busy, with church callings and all the rest.  But a fruitless path-focus can easily lead me to a checklist paradigm of gospel progress. Such a checklist does have its benefits, and it can lead to a degree of personal transformation.

On the other hand,  a tree-focused path will focus me more on my nature, and not so much on my list. I likely will still want to do most of what is on that list, but the list will be a means and not an end.  A Book-of-Mormon metaphor closely-related to the Tree of Life metaphor, that of the broken heart, perhaps enables me to gauge my own nature a little more directly than partaking of the fruit. In several locations in the Book of Mormon we are told that the ends of the law can only be answered to those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit (see 2nd Nephi Chapter 2).  The broken heart in this context clearly relates to the infinite ransom, to the Atonement.  As with Nephi, a deep, personal realization that one is the beneficiary of an infinite sacrifice results in the opening of the heart, and the flowing of charity.  The people of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon experienced a similar state when they were awakened to a “sense of [their] nothingness” through a “knowledge of the goodness of God” (Mosiah 4:5), specifically of the Atonement.

The metaphor of the broken heart suggests a radically changed heart, where my will is swallowed up in the Lord’s will. It also suggests an open heart. Still fuzzier that simply holding to the rod, but perhaps more of a specific touchstone which can guide my meditations on my nature.  As with all powerful metaphors, there are a number of levels at which the truth of the metaphor can be apprehended.

But if we are sensitive to the Spirit, and have that Tree squarely in focus, there can indeed be moments where we taste the fruit, and where we might catch a glimpse of that illumination that Nephi experienced. All of a sudden we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of whatever differences might separate us. Those are the shining moments that cannot be improved—only enjoyed.

 The Path AND the Tree

In the end, the powerful tree of life metaphor tells us that it is about the discipline of the quest, as well as the spiritual transformation at the tree. You can’t get to the tree without following the path, without enduring the rigors of the way, and without holding to the rod. On the other hand, it is possible to hold to the rod without much forward movement.  A clear vision of the destination, and a burning desire to taste the fruit, is necessary to be able to make progress toward the destination. Without that vision and desire, it is possible to be very comfortable on the path. It is possible to be a believing, chaste, tithe-paying, active member of the church with little or no concern about whether or not one has tasted of the fruit of the tree of life.  You could be a very righteous egotist, in other words.

It is also clearly possible to focus on the fruit while ignoring the discipline of the path.  The fruit is the main thing, so why worry about the law and the path?  One can certainly be kind and loving and unchaste at the same time. One can also be forgiving and not particularly pious. But the full transformative power of the fruit is only available to those who have endured the rigors of the quest, by staying on the path, and by being spiritually refined through the process. Chastity and piety enable a much greater love than is possible without these qualities. But without a focus on charity, chastity and piety are sterile.  We need the path and the fruit. The mythos is about traveling the path to a destination. When we lose sight of that destination, we have lost our way, even if we stay on the path.

It is true that there can be a transcendence of the law as a result of the spiritual transformation associated with partaking the fruit.  But that transcendence only comes about through the rigors of the quest, of holding to the rod through thick and thin, through the mists of darkness.  A transformed pilgrim is exactly where all the law points to; it is no longer necessary to consult the law.

Most of us are mainly on the path. We may stray off and on the path, but we do our best to hold on to that rod. Now and then we do get a taste of the fruit of the tree of life. Perhaps through some selfless act of service, perhaps through a brief insight felt while singing a hymn, or perhaps by meditating on a particular scriptural passage. Holding to the rod enables those brief moments, and the farther along we go down the path, the longer our moments of lovingkindness become.

An integrated mythos of path and tree frees me from a preoccupation with the nature of the path. The imperfections of the Church become less relevant the more I focus on the tree and its fruit. The Church is a path, not a destination. If some of the path’s stewards sometimes seem a little overly preoccupied by what I view as minutia, I can easily let it go. I know when I am one of the path’s stewards I am not always right on target either.

The Mythic Vision and the Book of Mormon

The allegory of the iron rod and the tree of life is a very powerful metaphor. It allows us to place and see ourselves on the path, and it gives us a clear vision of what we ought to be about in this life – a total transformation through lovingkindness. This allegory becomes a myth when it becomes a defining story about who we are. Clearly, the iron rod qualifies as mythos in that sense. But the tree of life part of this allegory is much less well defined in our culture; it does not define the church as much as the iron rod does.

Looking at Book of Mormon stories as myths, in the sense defined above, frees us from worrying about the factual basis for these stories. There are of course many who could not accept the Book of Mormon on any other basis than factual truth. If the Book of Mormon were shown to be based on anything other than historical, factual truth, then they could not accept any of the teachings within the book.  A mythical approach, regardless of our testimony of the actual origin of the book,  allows us to see the real truth of the Book of Mormon itself. .

What the metaphor of the tree of life tells me is that the path is part and parcel of getting to the tree and tasting the fruit.  I cannot dispense with the path.  And because I am not yet full of the love of Christ, because I have not fully tasted of the fruit, I can’t do much more than point down the road.  I have tasted enough of this love to know that it is what I want and need.  There may be other paths to that love, but this is the path I am born into. My church, however imperfect, is my path.


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