Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Joseph Smith for the 21st Century (2/3)

A growing body of readers is ready for another depiction of the Prophet. These readers do not want to be caught up in the battles of believers and disbelievers; they are more interested in knowing about an extraordinarily intriguing person.

This group of readers, I suggest, may not be satisfied with the choices that Dan Vogel, one of Joseph’s best-informed critics, offers to readers of Joseph Smith biographies. In describing some of the supernatural events in Joseph’s early life, Vogel says that we have three choices:

  1. Joseph Smith consciously deceived people by making up events and lying about them;
  2. he unconsciously deceived people by imagining events and calling them real;
  3. he told the truth.

Vogel asserts that we cannot believe that Joseph told the truth without abandoning all “rationalist categories of historical investigation.” [i] No one can believe rationally in the actuality of supernatural happenings of the kind Joseph claimed for himself. Therefore, he must have been a deceiver, either consciously or unconsciously. Like Brodie, Vogel leans toward conscious deceit. Vogel believes Joseph Smith knowingly lied by claiming that he translated the Book of Mormon when in fact Joseph was making it up as he went along.

For my hypothetical body of twenty-first century readers, Vogel’s alternatives represent a hard choice. Readers are being asked to consider the revelations as either true or a form of deception. Joseph Smith either spoke for God or he duped people. There is no middle ground.

Vogel’s set of alternatives represents a version of what I would call “the strict Enlightenment,” by which I mean a form of Enlightenment thought that forces everything into rational categories of analysis and refuses to admit the validity of any other forms of thought and belief.

By this strict standard, Mohammad’s vision of Gabriel carrying him to Jerusalem was a form of conscious or unconscious deception. Saint Theresa’s transports, Native American vision quests, Saint Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus—all these and hundreds of other reports of visitations and journeys into heaven are conscious deceptions, or they are the product of the visionaries’ imaginations and are thus unconscious deceptions.

The Enlightenment had a word for all these supposed revelations: superstition. Joseph was categorized with a long line of impostors, starting with Mohammad and continuing down through the French Prophets and Joanna Southcott, the notorious English prophetess. [ii] Enlightened newspaper editors and critics of religion dealt with revelators by classifying them all as frauds and throwing them all on the trash heap together. For many years, Roget’s Thesaurus listed the Qur’an and Book of Mormon together under “pseudo-revelation.” [iii]

click to enlarge

Joseph Smith, Mohammad, and other extrabiblical prophets could be understood by putting them in the company of impostors through the ages.

In this postmodern era, when the Enlightenment itself has been discredited, many readers may prefer to be less strict in their rationality. Vogel himself thinks of Joseph Smith as a sincere deceiver. He sympathetically concludes, “I suggest Smith really believed he was called of God to preach repentance to a sinful world but that he felt justified in using deception to accomplish his mission more fully.” [iv]

Many readers want to see human life as variegated, strange, and rife with complex possibilities. These new readers are open to experiences beyond the ordinary. They want to observe lives that are unlike their own, sometimes in astounding ways. As George Eliot said of the visionary Theresa of Avila, “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa.” [v] In other words, Theresa’s visions take us to the outer reaches of human capacity to places we don’t ordinarily go.

This desire to explore the varieties of human experience does not require a dissection of every supposedly supernatural event in order to find its rational, scientific basis. We realize now that dissection kills the animal put under the knife. We grant visionaries the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that they may have had experiences beyond conventional understanding and knowledge. They are part of a grand human effort to discover meaning through poetry, art, and revelation.

We can delight in the diversity of human experience and rejoice in all that God has wrought among his children. Modern readers may be willing to allow that Joseph Smith was sincere in saying he had visions and translated the Book of Mormon, and simply want to know more. To call him a deceiver misses the point of visions. In The American Religion, the literary critic Harold Bloom, no believer in revealed religion, relished the genius of Joseph Smith’s historical revelations without getting bogged down in questions of scientific authenticity. [vi]

The common presumption nowadays is that visionaries should not be called “pious frauds,” Vogel’s term. [vii] That broad tolerance has come about partially because of developments outside of Mormon historiography. In a postcolonial time, the accusation that strange religions are superstitions has been discredited by our experience with native peoples. Imperialists once applied the term “superstition” to the religions of colonized populations. Discrediting their religion as superstition was one step in subjecting them.

Now, in our effort to see these colonized people on their own terms, we want to give their religions full credit. That transformation in the study of world religions has prepared an audience to give more credence to Joseph Smith. Rather than colonizing him in the name of Enlightenment rationality, we listen more sympathetically. Contemporary readers will look upon Joseph Smith as if they were tolerant ethnographers going among native people. Interested students will want to learn about the world of early Mormonism without disrupting it and get as close as they can to the experience of revelation as Joseph experienced it.

I have presented the passing of the old twentieth-century issue of authenticity as if this were a gain for Mormons. Biographers of Joseph Smith now can write for an audience with broad sympathies who will want to know more about revelation and will not require that it be explained as pious deception. But I wish now to reverse direction and ask if Mormons will be happy with this outcome.

Is it an improvement to end the war between believers and unbelievers that raged in the biographies of the twentieth century? The new tolerance permits a believing biographer like myself to present more of Joseph’s revelations without fear of running up against a wall of hostile disbelief, but is that advantage counteracted by a blurring of the real issues? Wouldn’t believing biographers prefer to have the question of authenticity laid squarely before our readers, even at the cost of having the revelations disputed? Do we want Joseph Smith’s challenge to the world to be lost in a haze of a patronizing kindness?

By giving in to tolerance, there is a danger that Mormonism will be treated like voodoo or shamanism—something to examine in excruciating detail and with labored respect, while privately the ethnographers believe these religious manifestations are the product of frenzied minds and a primitive, prescientific outlook. Wouldn’t we prefer to be taken seriously enough to be directly opposed rather than condescended to?

Right now, the Book of Mormon might aspire to be classed with the Qur’an as the inspired book of a great world religion. Many readers would go with us that far. But are Mormons willing to accept that judgment, or do we want a more exclusive claim on revelation? Many Mormons believe that Joseph Smith and the scriptural revelations are in a class of their own, distinct from Saint Theresa and Mohammad, and would be unhappy to be put on such a list, no matter how distinguished the other visionaries.

One fact in Joseph Smith’s history may prevent his complete absorption into the muffling embrace of liberal tolerance, and that fact is the existence of the gold plates. Many modern readers will acknowledge Joseph’s sincerity in his more ordinary run of revelations. They can imagine holy words coming into his mind as he wrote, “Hearken, O ye people of my Church” (D&C 1:1). Most of the Doctrine and Covenants fits within the limits of believable revelation—though privately the readers may feel the words came from no greater distance than Joseph’s own subconscious. But gold plates, sitting on the table as Joseph translated, shown to witnesses to feel and examine, touched by Emma as she cleaned house?

Such a tangible artifact is hard to attribute to a standard religious experience, even in an extraordinary person such as Joseph. With the gold plates, we cross into the realm of deception or psychotic delusion. In the minds of many readers, to see and touch forty pounds of gold plates with ancient writings on them, people had to be either tricked or confused. Joseph turns back into the impostor or self-deluded fanatic. [viii]

Here the old issue, then, reasserts itself. The broad-minded reader has to ask, Can it be possible that Joseph Smith did receive the gold plates from an angel? Was he guided by heaven, or was he not? There is no hiding behind the marvelous workings of the human spirit in explaining the plates. Either something fishy was going on, or Joseph did have a visitor from heaven.

The believing biographer here must abandon his tolerant readers to their own devices. The believer cannot help the unbeliever understand and sympathize with Joseph recovering the plates from the hillside. In that moment the issue is joined, the old issue that has hovered over accounts of Joseph’s life from the beginning: Did God speak to him or not?



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