There is a long-standing tradition in my former religious tradition of Mormonism that considers the Book of Mormon a historical text, that is, it recounts actual events of the ancient past. In recent days this issue has been brought to our attention again as the LDS Church has begun to publish a dramatized film version of the book on YouTube. In doing so, it has doubled down on the historicity of the book, noting in the videos itself that this dramatization is:
Based on actual events as recorded in The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ-beginning of video, “The Lord Commands Lehi’s Family to Leave Jerusalem | 1 Nephi 1–2 | Book of Mormon”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edg-0hAM3iA
And so the debate continues. Is it historical, or not?
I have suggested several times before that it is not literally historical, particularly in my reconstruction of the origins of the book. But in that reconstruction I also noted briefly that the Book of Mormon may hold historical truth in its nature of perennial wisdom. I want to explore that in this post, and offer a view that the book is indeed “historical,” just not literally so, and yet it is still real. I suggest it points to a Reality beyond reality, the really Real, the God beyond “God.”
Historical or Not?
Did the events that the book recounts actually happen, or did they not? No scholars outside of Mormonism, to my knowledge, have concurred with the assessment of many Mormon scholars that it is historical. They say the evidence just does not match up with what we know about history. And, of course, just because we believe something does not make it true, as the astrophysicist Carl Sagan has pointed out:
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.-Carl Sagan
Mormons do not have a corner on historical truth, any more than they do on any other “truth.” So it is fascinating to watch as they go ahead and claim that very thing, even in this most official channel, in spite of a host of wise historians, archaeologists, mesoamericanists, geographers, theologians, anthropologists, linguists, and other scholars who say that it simply could not have happened in the “real world.” That doesn’t seem to be any cause for concern in LDS authorities who have now emphatically asserted, again, that it did happen.
Why Should I Care?
But first, I think I should address why I care. As many of you know, I am no longer a member of the LDS Church, and I don’t have an LDS employer, so I don’t have to walk any fine lines in what I say. I am open to speak as I will, without fear of repercussions to my livelihood or membership in any faith community, which is a real concern for many members of the Church in exploring these things. I have no such artificial restraints on my tongue.
The truth is, I am still fascinated with Mormonism, because it is my tradition since birth, the tradition of my forefathers, of my ancestors, of my current family and relatives, and I do think Joseph Smith, its founder, was a genuine prophet-mystic. And so I continue to speak about Mormonism, interpreting and translating its ideologies perhaps in new ways, in new light, particularly in the light of contemplative mysticism, which I think has been tragically neglected in the tradition. I think there is truth still in Mormonism, but it is hidden very deeply, so deeply that most completely miss it, both inside and outside the church.
But being both outside the church, but not wholly antagonistic toward its deepest truth, places me in a very strange position, which perhaps frustrates both sides. I am not in the tribe, so I don’t drink that Kool-Aid, but I’m also not an angry former member or anti-Mormon, seeking to tear it to pieces (at least not most of the time). I think the LDS Church, and the many other Mormon denominations, do a lot of good in the world for the most part, but they also do some very bad things. I think it is a good practice to look at our shadows, unveil our dark parts, and air our dirty laundry. If not, it gets repressed, suppressed, and hidden, only to erupt later in a maelstrom of pent-up emotion, which is not usually a good thing.
Walking on this razor “edge of the outside” perhaps means that I am talking to an empty room right now, which is always fun. We love to hear ourself talk, after all. But perhaps one day these things will be helpful to some in navigating their faith journey.
The Evidence is Stacked Up Against Literalism
For many years I thought the Book of Mormon was literally historical too. For decades! It’s what is officially taught in the church, and what six year old is going to know better. My parents and teachers are so much more knowledgeable than me; I took them at their word. What they said was the honest truth, as it is for most of us. The book actually took place, it is taught, from roughly 600 BC to 400 AD (or from 2200 BC if you include Ether), spanning locations from Jerusalem to Saudi Arabia to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (or the “heartland” of the USA, as there is an open debate in Mormonism as to where it actually took place in the Americas).
But this belief gradually unraveled as I considered the evidence, as I looked on both sides of the issue. I began to see clearly that it was simply not possible for it to have literally occurred as I had been taught. This was gut-wrenching! It is soul-crushing! It is the dark night of the soul! My worldview was crushed as wine from grapes, and I was plunged into a darkness of thought that was an abyss indeed.
Consider what it might be like to have everything you have been taught to be ripped out from underneath you as a rug. You fall, and you fall hard, breaking bones and getting a concussion. There are many now in and out of the Church who are trying to recover from this fall, who may be in a coma from that concussion, who are trying to reconstruct their faith, either in Mormonism, or some conception of God or the Divine. And if that all fails, it is straight to atheism we go, do not pass Go! do not collect $200.
How could the God that we believed in, who we had spiritual experience in, fail us?! We shake our fist at God, spit at the heavens, and forsake there ever was a God. How stupid we were. All that we experienced must have been a lie, merely human emotions, devoid of meaning, a fraud, quackery, a scam, a cult! Oh yes, we must have been in a cult. That’s the only thing that could explain it. We were duped. We bought it hook, line, and sinker. How foolish we were! lol
But, what if? What if there is truth to it. What if what we were feeling was not merely emotions. What if there is something to it, something divine, something worth investigating deeper? What if there is truth to the Book of Mormon, even historical truth? Could it be? But how? It seems impossible. We know the science. We know the history. Are we just fooling ourselves again? Do we desperately want it to be true, as Sagan said, and so we are willing to any lengths possible to make it true, even if it is not? And what would that say about us? Can you make something true that is not true? Can you create a new reality? Can you uncover a deeper truth that you had no idea was there? Is it possible? Are we just deluding ourselves more? It’s a risky journey, indeed, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. But we will fear no evil.
But, What If It Is “Historical”?
The Book of Mormon belongs to a large genre of spiritual literature which, of course, includes all the spiritual texts of the world’s great religions, all the scriptures, all the holy texts, all the wisdom teachings. Some may argue with that, but I think this is fairly well-attested, even if you are a hardcore anti-Mormon. It is simply stated, the religious text that Mormonism abides by, follows, guides it, etc. It is its spiritual text. That doesn’t say anything about its truthfulness, just that it is the text which is the fulcrum of the religion.
As such, many Mormons draw deep inspiration from its words. They read it every day, as many Christians read the Bible. It is their source of daily wisdom, their fount of spiritual counsel, their rock of faith. They see the words of God in its pages. What does that mean?
That can be variously interpreted, of course. Some think it means that God “Himself” sat down with ink and quill (or perhaps better, chisel and hammer) and wrote the whole thing from beginning to end. They think it was literally word-for-word came from the actual mouth of the Creator of the universe, the Holy One, the flesh and bones human body of the very anthropomorphized highest deity of Mormonism, God the Father, or Heavenly Father. And not only that, but it was actually written by ancient prophets. God spoke through those ancient prophets, which Joseph Smith then merely translated into English.
Others think that it was much more of an inspired work of Joseph Smith, that he was deeply inspired by God to write the words. It may have had some historical antecedent, but it was really Joseph’s words, as he chose to put them into English. God inspired the thoughts, but he wrote the words. This is perhaps what is becoming more popular in intellectual circles as Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler’s “Expansion Theory,” and yet even this theory still adheres to the idea of a real historical source: “he affirms that the Book of Mormon was translated through the gift of God and reflects a revelation of the content of an ancient source though we have access only to its modern translation.” In other words, the Book of Mormon is “a modern expansion of an ancient document.”
Some just aren’t buying that anymore. It’s just not tasting right. There was no ancient source, no ancient document. That is impossible, they say. And I think they are right. To a point.
Perennial wisdom, aka perennial philosophy, is the idea that the deepest spiritual teachings of all times and places have a similar source, a similar basis, a similar content, perhaps the very same origin. It is defined by Wikipedia as “a perspective in spirituality that views all of the world’s religious traditions as sharing a single, metaphysical truth or origin from which all esoteric and exoteric knowledge and doctrine has grown.”
It is also known as the Traditionalist School, which says:
Absolute Truth is “the perennial wisdom (sophia perennis) that stands as the transcendent source of all the intrinsically orthodox religions of humankind.” Infinite Presence is “the perennial religion (religio perennis) that lives within the heart of all intrinsically orthodox religions.”
Such ideas led to the formation of Transcendentalism and Universalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and others, such as Aldous Huxley, Karen Armstrong, Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, René Guénon, and Frithjof Schuon. The latter once said:
It has been said more than once that total Truth is inscribed in an eternal script in the very substance of our spirit; what the different Revelations do is to “crystallize” and “actualize”, in different degrees according to the case, a nucleus of certitudes which not only abides forever in the divine Omniscience, but also sleeps by refraction in the “naturally supernatural” kernel of the individual, as well as in that of each ethnic or historical collectivity or of the human species as a whole.-Frithjof Schuon, The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon, Suhayl Academy, Lahore, 2001, p.67.
In other words, the Truth, the absolute divine Truth, may be something that is the very fundamental essence of our spirit. That which created the cosmos also created us, of course, and so its “fingerprints” may still be within our very own deepest ontological reality. What the various revelations of that Truth (religions) do is crystallize or actualize that Truth, they “translate” or interpret that absolute Truth into reified forms, actualized forms, finite being, bringing that unmanifest formless being into manifest form, incarnating the Divine Reality into our perceived reality.
But this incarnation in the religious revelations, this articulation of the divine Truth, is not the Truth itself. That is the fatal error. It is like a shadow cast on the cave wall. It is actualized to greater or lesser degree, reflective of that ultimate Truth to greater or lesser degree, the mirror has greater or lesser dust obscuring our vision in it. The “nucleus of certitudes” is not in the revelations, but in that Truth which “only abides forever in the divine Omniscience.” But this Truth may be found directly within both the “kernel of the individual,” as well as the “collectivity of the human species as a whole.”
One of the pioneers of this perennial tradition was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), an Italian scholar and Catholic priest. He argued that
there is an underlying unity to the world, the soul or love, which has a counterpart in the realm of ideas. Platonic Philosophy and Christian theology both embody this truth… The Prisca theologia, or venerable and ancient theology, which embodied the truth and could be found in all ages, was a vitally important idea for Ficino.–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perennial_philosophy#Ficino_and_Pico_della_Mirandola
Or in other words, the world was bound together by an underlying unitive Whole, a Holy (Wholly) One, a Soul, or Love, and that this could actually be reached in Plato’s “realm of ideas,” which is perhaps consciousness itself. He thought there was an “ancient theology,” the prisca theologia, that embodied this worldview that could be found in all times in history, and thus it was considered “ancient.” The human soul itself was the carrier of this perennial Truth, this deep Wisdom of Sophia, and humans throughout history accessed it deep within their own selves, even in their own consciousness.
In the 19th century the founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky, gave another name to this perennial tradition, “Wisdom-Religion” or “Ancient Wisdom.”
The Book of Mormon as “Historical” Ancient Wisdom
Bringing this discussion back to the Book of Mormon, I believe that it is in this specific sense, and in this “limited” sense alone, that the book may be considered “historical.” I think Joseph Smith also tapped into this perennial wisdom, this ancient wisdom, which has existed in humanity since the very beginning of consciousness itself. Joseph delved deep into the abyss of his mind, and stretched it to the utmost heavens. I suggest he was a profound contemplative, an adept mystic, and therefore a genuine prophet, and he came to know the deepest parts of his self, even the divine Self, in consciousness. He was like a modern tertön, revealing terma, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. As in that tradition, the text was not literally coming from an “ancient document,” but an inner Source in the nature of consciousness itself. He was perhaps “translating” the nature of consciousness itself.
The seer stone was a meditation object, in my view, and he used it as a tool of meditative concentration and attention, similar to many contemplative practitioners today use an object such as a rosary, mala, mantra, candle flame, or breath, to alter his consciousness so that he could see, as a seer, deep into his fundamental essence, beyond the veil of the ego, to the essence of consciousness itself, the deepest Truth in that “kernel of the individual” and of the collective, and what it means to be human being in this cosmos. He looked, deeply, at what human nature was itself, which he found was also Divine, and then his mind translated this wisdom into the words we have today as the Book of Mormon. I think many spiritual texts were written in this very same way.
I suggest that the “history” of the Book of Mormon will not, and never will be, found in the external outward explicitly historical contexts, events, and people of past Mesoamerica, Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, Heartland America, or anywhere else, but rather in the human heart, in the human soul, in human nature and the human condition, even the essence of consciousness itself. That is where the Divine lives, as Paul witnessed two millennia ago (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19; cf. Acts 17:28; Gal. 2:20).
What this means, the implications of this theory, is that the “history” that the Book of Mormon attests to, the “testament” that it is really pointing to, is actually something that has existed in all people who lived in Jerusalem, and Saudi Arabia, and Mesoamerica, and the Heartland, and in every other place in the north and south, east and west, on the islands of the sea (2 Nephi 29:7, 11), and everywhere else since the beginning of humanity itself, even since the very beginning of the evolution of the first conscious lifeform. They lived it. They were its expression. They had it in them too!
The perennial or ancient wisdom in the Book of Mormon, as in other spiritual texts, therefore is ancient indeed, being billions upon billions of years old, and scattered throughout the Earth in every part, in every human, in every creature, in every wildflower, in every grain of sand, and even throughout the whole cosmos. It is perhaps as old as the cosmos itself, some 13.787 billion years old, and perhaps even beyond that! For God has no beginning nor end, which God-Self we are.
This is quite radical, I realize that, in the true sense of the term, “getting down to the roots,” as wrote LDS apologist Daniel C. Peterson, and in the spirit of Mormon historian B. H. Roberts, who once said:
I believe “Mormonism” affords opportunity for disciples of the second sort: nay, that its crying need is for such disciples. It calls for thoughtful disciples who will not be content with merely repeating some of the truths, but will develop the truths; and enlarge it by that development. Not half — not one-hundredth part — not a thousandth part of that which Joseph Smith revealed to the church has yet been unfolded, either to the church or to the world. The work of the expounder has scarcely begun. The Prophet planted by teaching the germ-truths of the great dispensation of the fulness of times. The watering and weeding is going on, and God is giving the increase, and will give it more abundantly in the future as more intelligent discipleship shall obtain. The disciples of “Mormonism,” growing discontented with the necessarily primitive methods which have hitherto prevailed in sustaining the doctrine, will yet take profounder and broader views of the great doctrines committed to the Church; and, departing from mere repetition, will cast them in new formulas; cooperating in the works of the Spirit, until they help to give to the truths received a more forceful expression and carry it beyond the earlier and cruder stages of development.-B. H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Translation,” Improvement Era 9/9 (July 1906): 713.
I think this is where Mormonism must go if it is to remain relevant in the 21st century. It’s claim on the literal historical truth of the Book of Mormon will not hold. It will not. It cannot, because I do not think it is true. And error does not hold. Mormonism cannot continue repeating these same primitive and crude “truths.” We’ve become discontent with them. It must develop them, it must enlarge itself by that development. It must go far beyond what Joseph Smith himself thought in his ego-mind was the nature of the Book of Mormon. We have not glimpsed the hundredth part of what Joseph started. We’ve scarcely begun!
So how do we do this? How do we depart from this mere repetition, and cast our ideas into new formulas, how do we reconstruct this faith, how do we cooperate in the works of the Spirit? I think we must do it the way it first started, deep in consciousness. We must return to contemplation. We must return to deep meditative practice in the depths of the Spirit. That is where we will learn what Joseph knew, that is where we will know how to cast these things into new formulas, as I have begun to do. If we do not return to that visionary Source, we will perish (Proverbs 29:18). Of that I am quite confident.
Some Mormons say this is a cop out, that this is not true history, that this is not what Joseph meant, that it is all foolishness, that this will destroy the Church. Let’s destroy Bryce! But the Church is already destroying itself. It is crumbling under the weight of Truth itself. God that is causing it to crumble. I’m not doing it. That glass house will fall by the Rock. It is God that is doing it, that is compelling us to grow into new forms, pushing us to greater heights and depths, drawing us forward into new visions of Reality, of Truth, of Love, even of our own Divine nature! Don’t you want to “learn how to be Gods yourselves so that you may save yourselves, even as all the Gods have done before you”? That is what Joseph taught days just before his martyrdom. How have we forsaken him and “Him”!
Awake and arise!
We are being called. Some One is knocking on the door. Will we answer it, or will we continue down this rusty and worn-out road to our oblivion?
It is our choice. Or is it?