A kind reader reached out to me and asked me to elaborate how my writings about the nature of God work with Joseph Smith’s First Vision, since it seems that his vision was meant to “clear up the confusion” surrounding the nature of God, the prevailing idea that God “was not made with body, parts or passions.” Wasn’t “the point” of his vision to “define for the world who/what God was”?
These kinds of questions often inspire good replies, which may be helpful for others. The following was my reply to these questions:
I think there wasn’t necessarily a “point” to Joseph’s vision. Joseph didn’t go into the woods wanting to know the ontological or physiological nature of God’s being. He simply wanted to know what church was right, which to join. He wanted to know how he could save his soul. In that, I think he was successful.
I think his tremendous mystical vision of God revealed to him salvation, in flying colors. I believe he became One with God in that vision, even as Jesus said that we must become One in God (John 17). He says that he received total forgiveness of his sins and was filled with great joy and love for many days afterwards. I believe he did actually have a direct encounter with the God that has been encountered by many people throughout history.
I think in all of these cases the experiences were ineffable. Even Joseph mentions this, that God “def[ied] all description” and that the experience was “indescribable.” But what the prophet-mystics always inevitably do is immediately try to describe their experience. They are essentially trying to take an experience that transcends language and concepts, and putting it into language and concepts. There is a translation that happens at that juncture, an interpretation, that each prophet-mystic must do. They have no choice if they want to say anything about it.
And the only tools that their rational minds have to work with are their present understanding and accumulated experience in the world. Joseph was steeped in the burned-over district of New York during the Second Great Awakening, and so he was deeply Christian. And so when his mind attempted to interpret or translate his experience of God, it immediately gravitated towards a description that conformed to his cultural conditioning and understanding.
I think this happens with each and every prophet-mystic. Someone who has a mystical experience of God in India may interpret and translate God as Krishna, or an avatar of Vishnu, having an understanding of deity in the Hindu pantheon. Someone who is deep in Buddhism living in Thailand may interpret and translate God as the Buddha, a Bodhisattva. These are all prophet-mystic interpretations of God that conform to their cultural understanding, the image that they have in their conceptual minds of what God is.
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Yes, in the Christian world, and particularly in the USA, that image had degraded significantly over many centuries, as there were not many people who had direct encounters with the Divine, and so Joseph “restored” many details about Divinity, but it was still framed in the Christian paradigm that Joseph knew. Joseph interpreted God as a particularly Christian God, since that is how his mind thought God was. I think there may have been additional interpretation as time went on, as it seems the accounts of the First Vision developed over time, and even Joseph’s understanding of the Godhead changed over time. He was still interpreting, translating his experiences into concepts that the mind could grasp. He was creating symbols to try to explain experience.
So, you see for example that in writing the Lectures on Faith that Joseph did not seem sure about the ontological nature of God the Father, whether he had a body of “flesh and bones.” Didn’t the First Vision reveal that truth explicitly? I mean, he saw God directly in that First Vision, right? He says he saw a personage, presumably with a human body, standing above him in the air. But Lecture #5 of Lectures on Faith actually taught that the Father was “a personage of spirit.” As Joseph thought about it more, he came to the conclusion that, no, the Father has a body of “flesh and bones” as recorded in D&C 130:22, and it was actually the Holy Ghost that was “a personage of Spirit.” Scholars have to try to explain these divergent perspectives of God, but occasionally they will note that Joseph was still “learning,” his tutoring by God was still underway. Revelations were still being given. They are still being given (Articles of Faith 9).
In other words, Joseph was still forming the concepts in his mind, these symbols, his mind was still grappling with his experiences, trying to come up with right conceptual solutions. Every prophet-mystic since the world began has had to do this, and each one inevitably fails in the absolute. Their descriptions are never absolute Truth. Why? Because, again, I think God is fundamentally transrational, transconceptual, translinguistic. God transcends all of the normal rational intellectual egoic parts of our minds, and therefore cannot be described fully in any concepts that these parts of our minds can understand. In fact, I think we can only perceive God if we move beyond those parts of our minds in deep contemplation, silent prayer, or meditation (among other things). We need to change our consciousness to perceive God. Our typical egoic mode of consciousness will never be able to perceive the true nature of God fully or directly, it seems to me.
So why did Joseph finally interpret God as a being with “flesh and bones”? I think he may have come to know and intuit (and I think I have too, perhaps in a similar way) that God is our fundamental Being. God is at the very base of who and what we are. As Paul declared on Mars Hill, God is a being that is a deep essential part of our very own selves: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
So if God is at the base of who we are, then absolutely, God has a body of “flesh and bones.” It is our own body! Our body is God’s body. This is also hinted at quite explicitly in 1 Corinthians 12. We are God’s body. Our eyes are God’s eyes. Our hands are God’s hands. Our feet are God’s feet. We are God’s instruments because we are God. Even as Joseph taught in one of his last sermons (King Follett), we are Gods (as recorded in each of the standard works) and “you have got to learn how to be gods yourselves… the same as all gods have done before you.”
There is not a separate independent God or Gods somewhere out in the distant cosmos in a human body or bodies that descended down to Earth to visit Joseph Smith, it seems to me. We are that God. God is in us, and all around us, in and through all things, including you and me. And when we come into deep meditative communion in our consciousness we may see this God within us in full majesty and glory. I think Joseph perceived this God in deep consciousness, and his rational mind translated his experience in terms, concepts, and symbols with which he was familiar.
I have had several glimpses of this deeper consciousness, and it is powerful, beyond words. I’m not sure I will ever attempt to tell it publicly, because again, it would be translating experience into limited language, and would immediately begin to be misunderstood. I think it can only truly be known through direct personal experience, which reveals an intuitive knowledge, which the ancients called “gnosis.” This is a kind of knowledge that we are not very familiar with today, but I think Joseph was deeply familiar with it, and tried to teach the Saints how to become familiar with it. It was “spiritual knowledge.”
I think Joseph knew how to attain to this state of consciousness so he could “converse” with God. What I think he was actually doing was conversing with his deepest Self, the deepest parts of his own consciousness beyond and beneath and transcendent to his normal everyday waking egoic consciousness, even areas of subconscious and unconscious mind, perhaps even a “cosmic” consciousness.
I have written many things about this, because I think it is the core message of the gospel, world-wide, in every spiritual tradition since the foundation of the world. It is the gospel that Jesus preached, I perceive, which is why he spent his life teaching that “God is in me.” What the Christian tradition through time has often obscured and misunderstood is that they thought Jesus was talking about only himself. I don’t think so. I think he was talking about each and every one of us, that we too may come to know directly that “God is in me,” and that “I am one in God as Christ.”
It can be very difficult to try to understand these things unless we have experience in meditative contemplative consciousness, or mysticism, which most people today are not at all familiar with. Our secularized Westernized modernized society has lost it, for the most part. To most, these things sound absolutely crazy. No wonder so many people thought Jesus and Joseph Smith were crazy. They weren’t familiar with this deeper spiritual consciousness.
Please know that I do not claim to have all the answers, I think this is part of the Mystery of God. And even if I thought I did, I could not communicate them in any words that would be absolutely accurate or precise. The best spiritual teachers are those that help “point the way” so that each person can come to this understanding on their own, in their own direct personal intimate primary first-hand experience of God. So that is what I’m trying to do as well as I can.