In 1994 the journal Dialogue published an article by Dr. Lance Owens: “Joseph Smith and Kabbalah: The Occult Connection.” One of Owens' sources was Early Mormonism and the Magic World View by D. Michael Quinn – who had been excommunicated the year before. Quinn's work had been used as source material for the popular anti-Mormon comic book The Visitors, so Owens was hitting a nerve. The mid 1990s in the Utah Mormon culture zone were also marked by lingering fears of Satanic cults (anyone who lived in Provo at the time probably heard all sorts of urban legends about goings-on in the old Academy building before it was renovated as the new city library). The word “occult” had picked up plenty of negative baggage through popular media already, and the use of it in such a context at such a time was bound to ruffle some feathers, as Owens himself anticipated.
In 1996 William J. Hamblin wrote a footnote-laden dressing-down of Owens' article. In pointing out its scholarly shortcomings he elegantly missed the real point, because after all the purpose was not only to deflect suspicion of any “occult” connection to Joseph Smith's experience or mission but to continue depreciating any similarities between the two at all – similarities which I for one came to find inspiring rather than alarming. It took another nine years for the Mormon establishment to come around to admitting Joseph Smith's magic background, after a fashion: in Richard Bushman's authorized biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling we read that “Magic and religion melded in Smith family culture” (p. 50) and there is even a frank admission of the seerstone “blending magic with inspired translation” of the Book of Mormon (p. 131).
The original meaning of the word “occult” after all being “hidden,” it would behoove us Mormons to consider promises in our unique scripture of “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures” (Doctrine and Covenants Section 89:18-19, my emphasis). We might consider the gnostic experiences of scriptural figures, often kept hidden by command or necessity (Alma 12:9; 19, 22; 3 Nephi 26, 28; Ether 4 and so on).
The initial attraction of magic seems opposed to the dictates of traditional religion, but both practices are systems that grew out of and should lead to gnosis. The previous post mentioned two responses to gnosis and mythopoeia:
1. We can dismisstheir visions, miracles and ceremonies as devilish counterfeits of our truth. Even in the Book of Mormon there are several instances of the true prophets being accused of deceiving people by their “cunning arts” (1 Ne 16:38), “the power of the devil” (Alma 15:15), and “the cunning and the mysterious arts of the evil one” (Helaman 16:21). Accusations, labels, meanings, are so easily used as weapons against those whom a group fears or distrusts, that an earnest truth-seeker can't afford to take such words at face value.
2. Or we can dismiss any claim to transcendence as “the effect of a frenzied mind” (Alma 30: 16). In a series of lectures on the gnostic myth of Sophia, Dr. Owens addresses this. Fueled in part by absurd fundamentalist insistence on impossible dogmas as fact, a rationalist attitude has grown which pathologizes myth and gnosis.
To believe in any religion or myth in light of modern scientific knowledge is a third way between the rationalist dismissal of myth and the fundamentalist dismissal of fact. A psychological understanding, or a psychological imagination, can help see the dogmas of our professed creeds with new eyes: to recognize their value as myth (here I would also recommend Dr. Owens' lectures on Tolkien's mythopoeia). This means ceasing to disparage or even define myth as false distraction from truth, and instead seeing it as a way to approach Truth. This is how we can truly recognize the value of others’ myths, and our own.
No matter what the world thinks about religious experience, the one who has it possesses the great treasure of a thing that has provided him with a source of life, meaning, and beauty and that has given a new splendour to the world and to mankind. He has pistis and peace. Where is the criterion by which you could say that such a life is not legitimate, that such experience is not valid and that such pistis is mere illusion? Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live? (Jung: Psychology and Religion - Collected Works vol. 11, p. 113)
We might evaluate the ways our neighbors engage with myth and the psyche by truly perceiving the fruits of their actions rather than relying on rumor or applying the yardstick of dogmatic correctness like a punishing rod. We may still have the option of holding out faith in metaphysical facts concerning the “ultimate things,” but even if that loses traction to a more pragmatic approach, might we not find that the humility, empathy, respect and compassion we gain in return is after all the change of heart that leads us to live peaceably?
Those who found these posts interesting might also be interested in a pagan's view of Joseph Smith in this article.
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