Unhelpful Analogies

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Part of life on the large college campus where I spend most of my days involves a constant bombardment of sidewalk graffiti advertising the latest political causes or fraternity parties.

A while back I saw one particular piece of sidewalk art that grabbed my attention. Not due to any particular skill on the part of its anonymous artist, but as a result of the subject matter. There on the ground in front of me was the familiar circle diagram that has been reproduced on countless Sunday School chalkboards in LDS meeting places around the world. Something like the following:

(from lds.org)

 

Amazingly, this little diagram claims to sum up the great plan of the eternal God. It attempts to solve the problems that have vexed philosophers and theologians and mystics for the hundreds of centuries of humankind’s existence economically, with a few simple shapes and arrows.

As a starting point, there is nothing wrong with these kinds of mnemonics. They can be extremely useful in organizing something that is beyond our comprehension. But often they can trip us up. Analogies are so helpful because they help us relate things that we are already familiar with to things that are unfamiliar, but they can only do so much work for us before they start to break down. It is difficult to strip away the analogy from the truth, and we don’t always understand the downstream ramifications of seemingly innocuous simplifications. The analogy often becomes the source of unexamined assumptions that might become problematic down the road.

It’s nothing like that…

Doctor Who fans may be familiar with this exchange:

Rory: What is this place? The Scrapyard at the End of the Universe?
The Doctor: Not end of. Outside of.
Rory: How can we be outside the Universe? The Universe is everything.
The Doctor: Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside.
Rory: Okay.
The Doctor: Well it’s nothing like that.

Amy: Wait, so we’re in a tiny bubble universe sticking to the side of the bigger bubble universe?
The Doctor: Yeah. No! But if it helps, yes.

For the uninitiated, The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who … well, it is sort of hard to explain. For the purposes of this post, it is probably sufficient to note that he travels around the universe with human companions and often finds it necessary to explain things that are totally beyond their grasp.

Or try this:

Teaching Physics

xkcd.com/895

 

This is a general problem. Analogies and simplifications can only take us so far.

I’d like to explore the consequences of these misconceptions in a later post, but I think it is helpful to examine the analogies that we often use to explain gospel concepts closely.

Gospel Analogies (a very partial enumeration):

  • Our spirits were born spiritually in a way that is like physical birth
  • Something happened in the preexistence that was like a war in heaven
  • The gospel is like a plan
  • The process of creation was like work that God performed
  • Prophets are like messengers from God
  • This life is like a test
  • Jesus’ atonement is like the settling of a debt
  • God’s commandments are like laws
  • Covenants are like contracts between God and people
  • The community of heaven is like an earthly family

Let me repeat, just because an analogy is incomplete does not mean that it isn’t helpful or even mostly correct. But the one thing is not the other. When we say that our spirits were “born” or that our sins are “paid for” or we have “broken” a commandment, a lot of semantic baggage gets smuggled in almost unnoticed, and dwelling too much on the analogy can distract from the deeper truth that is trying to be communicated.

The trouble with unhelpful analogies is that they do too much and too little for us all at once. They wrap up expansive concepts too completely and might lead us to believe that all the hard work of understanding has been done. By giving us something concrete to think about, we are in danger of seizing onto the thing that is familiar and losing sight of the transcendent.

I think that this can be especially dangerous for people in the midst of a faith transition. When we examine the teachings of the church and probe the limits of the analogies that we’ve been given, we will often find them wanting. It can be tempting at that point to throw them out. Indeed many of the people around us and our leaders often talk in ways that suggest the analogies are more than just hints toward a more transcendent truth. This kind of rhetoric can be extremely frustrating when we are in the the middle of a painful reevaluation of fundamental gospel concepts.

An analogy about analogies

In my experience, Mormons don’t do mystery particularly well, and in this area, I think we have a lot to learn from more mystical traditions. There is a story (and for the life of me, I cannot seem to find a reliable citation for it), of a Buddhist teacher who drew the comparison between his teachings and a finger pointing at the moon. Of course, the finger is not the moon, and if the student does not grasp that she will spend all of her time focused on the wrong thing altogether. The finger points the learner toward the deeper reality.

 

Welcome, Moonlight by Magic Madzik licensed under CC BY 2.0

4 Comments

  1. Daniel's Gravatar Daniel
    February 27, 2015    

    nice analysis. I love analogies but they always break down. There is great value in them (I would argue that they are indispensable for understanding spiritual principles) as long as we see them for what they are: illustrative lies. A big part of the problem is that most folks don’t recognize the difference between similie and metaphor.

  2. Kevin Rex's Gravatar Kevin Rex
    February 27, 2015    

    Thank you so much for helping my mind formulate why so many analogies haven’t helped me. I began this week to yearn more and more for my old LDS community, which I purposely left almost a year ago, and this insight into what I see as an “easy out” doesn’t help me enjoy the LDS faith. I loved the mystery of things when I was a young man, and I see that, perhaps, I can still transcend, as you put it, the mundane and boring of my LDS faith, for myself.

  3. February 27, 2015    

    I think it must be the LDS penchant for literalism that causes us to slip so quickly and easily from “like” to “is.” Great article, Brad.

  4. Scott S's Gravatar Scott S
    February 28, 2015    

    This was a fantastic opener to my Saturday morning. Thanks Brad.

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