I get this question all the time.
“Why study all this cosmology and symbolism stuff when today’s prophets and apostles emphasize gospel principles? Isn’t that an indication of where we should spend our time and efforts?”
Yes. The brethren focus on the basics for the benefit of potential converts and the newest church members because their mission is worldwide conversion and the building of the kingdom. That’s why their message is repetitive. They consistently emphasize the basics. And there is great wisdom and virtue for each of us in revisiting those basics on a regular basis. That’s why we consistently hear that same, vital counsel.
But once firmly grounded in the faith, the responsibility to move forward is wholly ours. The brethren are not there to do what we can do for ourselves. We are responsible for our own salvation. This has always been true.
Inquirers then ask, “Then, why bother with traditional, cosmological imagery? How is this useful? Isn’t this information really irrelevant to our salvation, just a curious sideline?”
Here’s my response:
The whole purpose of studying the Restored Gospel from a cosmological perspective is to allow us to easily and correctly distinguish what is spiritual (the fundamental truths) from what is temporal (the origins and meaning of symbolism). If we cannot easily and correctly differentiate between what is symbolic and what is literal in the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets, then we run the very real risk of reaching incorrect conclusions about their pronouncements.
For example, this is precisely what has happened to the interpretation of prophecy in recent times: In the apparent absence of a clear methodology for examining prophetic imagery, the whole enterprise has been hijacked by speculation and bad interpretation from those within and without our ranks. Yet surprisingly, we find that Joseph Smith gave us a concise and workable method for interpreting prophecy, based in cosmology, that nearly everyone seems to have overlooked.
That’s just one reason why we should have at least a passing acquaintance with cosmology. Another is the incontestable fact that our scriptures, the Pearl of Great Price being the best example, are chock full of cosmological imagery. How, then, can we fully understand our scriptures if we don’t understand cosmology?
Perhaps the best reason to study all this is that our temples, inside and out, are replete with that same cosmic imagery. In fact, the whole temple experience is geared to show us the cosmological components of the prophetic experience, beginning with the creation. The visions of Moses and Abraham are, just like our temple icons, filled with the cosmic imagery of planets, stars, suns and moons. Our endowment is a virtual example of the prophetic ascension experience related throughout scripture in the visions of the prophets. This is the core message in our temple ceremonies. Thus, within our temples, each of us is afforded the marvelous opportunity to vicariously experience the visionary odyssey of the prophets. In so doing, we share the awe-inspiring, cosmic vision revealed to them. So, how can we fully understand the endowment message if we don’t see its cosmological components? The tragedy is that so few Latter-day Saints recognize that truth and thus miss the vital and mind-expanding message the endowment is meant to convey. Thus, the core message of our restored endowment goes unnoticed and unappreciated by nearly all temple goers.
As faithful, believing church members, we need to return to our cosmological roots. We should revisit the basic principles Joseph gave us in order to fully understand our own religion. He, in fact, wrote: “I also gave some instructions in the mysteries of the kingdom of God; such as the history of the planets [cosmology], Abraham’s writings upon the planetary systems [cosmology], etc.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 118)
There is yet another reason why we should study cosmology. The cosmological elements once seen in Earth’s ancient skies gave rise to a universal, sacred language of myth, tradition and religion the world over. This system of symbols and metaphors became the common denominator of all sacred thought and teaching in whatever ancient culture. Thus, any prophet could capitalize on these commonalities to convince prospective converts that he had the “truth.”
The Savior taught it that way, as did his apostles. We see Peter, for example, in the New Testament, rehearsing the cosmological history of the world from the Flood forward to both the Jews and the Gentiles about the change in Earth’s heavens, a key principle in their pagan belief system that enabled them to accept what Peter subsequently taught about Jesus. We see John, in his marvelous Apocalypse, doing the same by inserting Jesus the Christ into pagan traditions common to the Hellenistic culture of the day, making it easy for Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians and Jews to see the Savior in their own, particular cultural traditions.
Once a missionary, prophet or apostle had succeeded by this artifice in convincing the people he had the “truth,” he could then go on to teach the higher, spiritual concepts and precepts of the gospel – convert them, in other words. This made teaching the higher, spiritual truths much easier.
The common cosmic traditions of people everywhere became the universal language for conversion. It was a tool employed by virtually every prophet and apostle down through the ages. Even the Savior used it, calling himself “Alpha and Omega,” relating himself to the “I Am” of antiquity, the “Word of God” or claiming to be the cosmic “Messiah” and the “Son of Man”—all titles derived from sacred cosmology of the past.
Joseph Smith did something similar, only in reverse order. Unlike the ancients, our culture knew nothing of the past cosmological history of the heavens. Science had seen to that, and religion had followed suit. So, rather than starting with the ancient cosmological traditions, as his predecessor prophets had done, Joseph turned to repairing the tattered, soiled and misused remnant of Christian doctrine prevalent in his day. Only later, once he had convinced converts of his Christian roots, did he venture to re-institute cosmological tradition in modern temple worship, the universal theme of all temple worship anciently, as a vital and traditional part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, this is the straightforward answer to those common questions I get. Restoring the “fullness of the gospel” required including the cosmological traditions and their respective rituals that were honored and repeated by all the prophets. Again, Joseph wrote: “I also gave some instructions in the mysteries of the kingdom of God; such as the history of the planets, Abraham’s writings upon the planetary systems, etc,” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 118, emphasis added.) This was done so that we can understand the arcane allusions and references of the prophets and apostles as they meant them to be understood, not as our emasculated, spiritualized and Christianized versions had them prior to Joseph Smith. Clarifying these symbolic and metaphorical usages was as much a part of restoring the truth as instituting the correct manner of baptism or the reality that God has a body of flesh and bone.
The next question asked is, “So, is this knowledge vital to our salvation or exaltation?”
I answer with profound conviction:
It most certainly is if we intend to fully understand the prophets, comprehend prophecy itself and inherit the blessings promised in the Endowment. Otherwise, Joseph Smith, under God’s tutelage, would not have restored it to us. At some point in our eternal progression, we will have to come to this knowledge and understanding. Sooner or later, in this life or the next, we will be required to include this in our worldview.
So, why not get an early start? Why not follow Joseph Smith’s counsel to get as much correct knowledge in this life as possible to our greater benefit in the next?